It takes time to train dragons to fly, both onscreen and off.
It can take four years or longer for a studio to develop a feature-length animated movie. Adapting one of those movies into a live show might sound like a comparative afterthought, but in the case of Academy Award-nominated How to Train Your Dragon, the same elements that made the movie ripe for an arena experience made translating the film to stage a monster creative undertaking.
"There are things that you can do in a movie that you can’t do on stage, but there are also things that you can do much more effectively on stage, and because they’re live—you’re watching somebody fly a dragon in a live arena—there’s something exciting about it," says Bill Damaschke, chief creative officer at DreamWorks.
The $20 million How to Train Your Dragon Live Spectacular debuted in Australia this summer, the product of four and a half years of labor, which began while the movie was still in production. The results are indeed pure spectacle: 23 dragon-sized dragons (with wingspans up to 46 feet), a horde of highly trained circus artists and acrobats, and fully immersive cinematic projection that interacts with the performers on stage. While DreamWorks had some success in the live space before with Shrek the Musical, which premiered on Broadway in 2008 and is now on London’s West End, in order to create something on this scale, they had to wait until the right collaborators came on board.
Damaschke and his colleagues originally met with the animatronics gurus at Global Creatures about partnering up for Shrek the Musical, which would also feature a large dragon puppet. While the entertainment company behind the international hit Walking With Dinosaurs ended up not being the right partners for Shrek, they seemed like the company best suited to helping DreamWorks bring Dragons to life.
"We thought that with what Global Creatures was doing, we could take the story and do something that had never been done in an arena setting, which is have large animatronic puppetry, a flight track, projection work, and storytelling all in the same experience," Damschke says. "Of course, it is called How to Train Your Dragon, so first and foremost is making sure you have believable dragons."
To get a sense of what a believable dragon entails, it’s important to note that the biggest ones in the show weigh at least 1.6 tons and generally require three operators. Once the crew at DreamWorks secured partners on the technical side who could produce such magnificent creatures, they had to find the right talent for actually putting these creatures in a show. For that, the company approached Nigel Jamieson, a theatrical director specializing in large-scale productions. Many of those who worked on the movie and were connected to the story ended up collaborating with Jamieson to put together the live experience.
"Very similar to how you produce an animated movie, we worked rough and figuratively until we were ready to really make it," Damaschke says. "A lot of small models were built. We had meetings where Nigel would act out almost the whole show for us—he would move little tiny stick dragons and people around on the model of what the arena floor was, just so we could see how each moment was going to work. That helped us to creatively develop it, and to deal with the logistics of it. We worked with a model on a table for a very long time to make sure we had the right ingredients."
While obviously not every animated movie has what it takes to thrive as a live experience, How to Train Your Dragon has the crucial elements of a relatable story (it’s basically about a teenager who doesn’t fit in) and visual grandeur (um, dragons). Ultimately getting the story across was just as big a concern in adapting the film to the stage as recreating the dragons themselves.
"The basic story is still the same, but the tools are different for how you can tell it," says Damaschke. "The biggest tool a film has is a close-up. It can really connect you to a character, when you see something in the actor’s face. The logistics for an arena, though—that you have an audience sitting on three sides, a much bigger space—affects how you tell the story. You need to make sure the focus is in the right place at the right time. There’s no camera, so you have to make sure everybody, in every seat, can understand what’s going on at all times. All the elements of the live theater—actors, lighting, sound design—all conspire to make sure those moments land for the audience."
Dragons has been filling arenas since late June, and it’s scheduled to continue through at least the end of the year, whetting appetites for the inevitable How to Train Your Dragon 2, scheduled for 2014. While no other DreamWorks movies are currently in development as stage attractions, "there are other things we are talking about doing in the live space that might be original or different for us," says Damaschke. "It’s a world we love and a world we want to be a part of."